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Chicago Cubs: Hector Rondon must focus in his middle relief role

Oct 8, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Hector Rondon (56) reacts after the final out of the eighth inning against the San Francisco Giants during game two of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Hector Rondon (56) reacts after the final out of the eighth inning against the San Francisco Giants during game two of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /
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In the shadows of names like Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis, Chicago Cubs’ right-hander Hector Rondon has quietly turned in an impressive body of work.

There was once a time where Hector Rondon was the Chicago Cubs’ fireman. He excelled in the role, too, nailing down 59 saves between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Last summer, though, Theo Epstein dealt for southpaw Aroldis Chapman and Rondon was promptly relegated to a middle-relief role.

If you’re Rondon, you can’t help but be frustrated. Because, as Epstein himself admitted to CSN Chicago this winter, it’s through no fault of his that he lost the closer’s job.

"“It’s been Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis,” Epstein said. “There’s fewer than 10 people, maybe, on the planet that you would move Rondon out of the closer’s role for, in my opinion. But those happen to be two of them.”"

Chapman excelled following the trade to Chicago. Over the course of 28 appearances, Chapman posted a 1.01 earned run average to go along with 15.5 K/9. The long-ball was a complete non-issue, as well – a promising sign for any reliever.

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Rondon, meanwhile, fell off drastically after the acquisition of Chapman. In the three months leading up to the deal, he posted an earned run average of 1.74, 2.70 and 1.93. Battling an injury down the stretch, he allowed a dozen earned runs in a mere 9 2/3 innings pitched between August and September.

Come postseason, Rondon was back in the mix, but was far from his lights-out self. In six frames of playoff work, he pitched to a 4.50 ERA, including a 3.86 mark in the Fall Classic.

Simply put, he didn’t miss a lot of bats in the postseason.

It’s hard to put together a substantive review of Rondon’s second-half given his triceps injury that sidelined him in August.

Is a lack of focus to blame?

But in a limited sample size, there were some semi-alarming trends. First, and foremost, in non-save situations, Rondon was notably less effective.

His earned run average was two full runs higher in non-save situation appearances; his strikeout-to-walk ratio declined, while his WHIP increased from .0833 to 1.190. Across the board, he took a step backwards.

When I first saw these numbers, the first thought I had was: it’s a focus problem. Why? Because when you’re handed the ball in the ninth, you know it’s all on you to shut the door. You have to be locked in and ready to go from the word ‘go.’

Handed the ball with a lead in the middle innings, there’s not that same adrenaline pumping through your veins.

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Opposing hitters batted .423/.483/.808 when the Chicago Cubs trailed and Hector Rondon was on the mound. Granted, it’s less than 30 plate appearances you’re talking about here, but it’s still a set of pretty alarming numbers.

The same trend presents itself in high versus low-leverage situations last season. Opponents put together a .592 OPS against Rondon in high-leverage at-bats. Meanwhile, in low-leverage battles, that number climbed to .788 – a difference of nearly 200 points.

When appearing in the ninth-inning or later, Rondon was lights-out. In the ninth, he held batters to a .164/.198/.267 slash-line while averaging an unthinkable 10.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

In extra innings, he was even better controlling opposing lineups. Their .466 ninth-inning OPS fell down to a dismal .330 clip against Rondon in extras. His control wasn’t as spot-on, but he was effectively wild for Joe Maddon.

What’s a realistic expectation for 2017 and beyond?

The Chicago Cubs’ bullpen is set at the end with Davis cemented firmly in the closer’s role. After extending right-hander Pedro Strop, it seems likely the hard-throwing reliever will occupy a good chunk of either the seventh or eighth inning for the Cubs.

Next: Lefty Anderson a key piece in repeat hopes this year

Add in veteran hurler Koji Uehara and Rondon gets pushed down further in the pecking order, especially when you take into account his struggles late last season. As for Maddon, though, Hector Rondon remains more valuable than ever – even though he’s no longer the go-to guy in the bullpen.

"He understands Wade being there. I also want him to understand that Wade can’t do it all the time, and that he needs to be ready and prepared to do it, which he will be. I told him how much I respect him. And, again, he’s all about the team, so it’s just one of those things: Wade will close, but these other guys are going to benefit because of that."

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